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Gender and open data: Is there an app for that?

Wouldn’t it be handy if you could just switch on that app and see the agricultural (or any other) sector through a gender lens? And what if everyone else also working in the agricultural sector just magically started to use it? Would it make us do things differently, collect different data, push for the release and visualisation of other types of datasets, or would we make sure the data were more equally accessed and used?

For some, this is not a hypothetical question. Even if such an app may not (at present) be an option, Ana Brandusescu, Research Officer at the World Web Foundation where she drives and coordinates Open Data Barometer research, open contracting (transparency in public procurement), anticorruption projects and who was earlier involved in establishing GODAN, brought the issue of ‘gender and open data’ to the attention of participants at the Open Government Partnership (OGP) Summit in Paris in late 2016, where she along with others called on OGP to ‘walk the talk’ on gender equality. ‘The open data space is still a rather techy and predominantly a male space, even if things are gradually changing,’ she explained.

A reason given could be that it is easy to assume that any data, and open data – which in itself is neutral – should steer clear from normative interpretations around gender and instead focus on just maximising its availability to citizens overall. The field has traditionally shied away from the normative side on data ownership and usage, yet this is becoming increasingly important going forward.

Another possible reason why gender has not featured strongly until very recently lies in the fact that those who come up with tech solutions around open data rarely are the same, or are even able to closely relate to, the universe of the end users. Rapid prototyping allowing for frequent interaction and adaptation between designer and user has taken off in other commercial domains, and even informed the ‘agile movement’ of working adaptively as a management approach. Yet, there are many challenges in replicating this approach to finding innovative open data solutions for rural agricultural workers, many of whom are women.

‘All evidence points to the fact that you need to closely interact with the end user in coming up with digital solutions to real world problems,’ says Brandusescu. Beyond securing equal data access, a gendered approach to open data involves systematically gathering relevant data for different sub-sets of users. For women in the agricultural sector, it could, for instance, be making data available about women, gathered by women and for women. It means shifting both the priority setting and primary data gathering closer to these women’s realities, involving the women themselves.

Clearly, such an approach goes beyond gender disaggregated data to look at what data is being collected, by whom, who owns it and who interprets it for action? As was also raised at a GODAN 2016 Summit break-out panel, it means empowering women’s groups to identify more clearly their information needs and to help them get access to this information in a way that is actionable for them.

Open and accessible data can serve as necessary and powerful triggers for learning in the adaptive process. Yet, in civic and political spaces – which by definition are gendered in nature – such data inputs will still have to go through many stages and filters in order to lead to lasting, institutionalised change that can challenge existing power patterns, often encountering backlash along the way (see figure). Making women the main actors of such learning and adaptation, rather than being ‘recipients’ or ‘channels’ of data and information is key.

‘Data doesn’t change the world; people change the world. It’s about inclusion. If women or other marginalized groups are categorically less able to access, feed into, interpret or interact with open data, the problem- solving and learning that goes along with that process and which leads into policy will by-pass them,’ Brandusescu stressed. ‘It goes back to the fundamental notion that we are not in this business of caring about open data for the sake it just being open. Unless it is both useful, and used, we have not done our job right.’

The World Wide Web Foundation has demonstrated through its own research the need to put a gender lens onto the open data field – across sectors. A 2015 report revealed for instance that in poor urban areas in the global South (drawing on 10 cities across Africa, Asia and Latin America), women were 50% less likely to be online than men. Moreover, once online they were 30-50% less likely to use the web to access their rights or speak out online.

Initiatives to address this divide include TechMousso (TechWoman) in Côte d’Ivoire, where the World Wide Web Foundation together with Data2x and the Millennium Challenge Corporation collaborated to address gendered data gaps and data use by women themselves. ‘In every local meeting, we are being invited,’ commented a woman from a participating village. ‘But being invited is not the same as having the right to speak in public. This right is reserved only for men.’ Finding new and alternative ways of interpreting data and feeding their views into local decision-making has been a first step of using data as means for empowerment.

On the other side of the spectrum of local to global, the Gates Foundation No Ceilings project explore gender inequality data at a meta level, in order to give more nuanced picture of progress and setbacks worldwide, using available global data on women and girls over the last 20 years. While this in itself is a powerful tool for visualising data on gender, the challenge will be to put it to work for gender transformation in more sector specific work.

So what does gender have to do with it? It is clear that a gendered approach to open data and its use need to go beyond the first and vital step of ensuring that open data is gender disaggregated, that the term ‘citizen’ is broken down into gendered sub-categories when it comes to voice and participation, and that efforts to address information asymmetries go hand in hand with efforts to address ‘empowerment asymmetries’. With women making up 60-80 percent of farmers in non-industrial countries (according to FAO estimates) and with up to 70 percent of agricultural labour in some countries coming from women, the role of open data will never transform the global response to hunger if women are by-passed in our global efforts to open data.

And no. There is no app for that. Not yet.

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Wouldn’t it be handy if you could just switch on that app and see the agricultural (or any other) sector through a gender lens? And what if everyone else also working in the agricultural sector just magically started to use it? Would it make us do things differently, collect different data, push for the release and visualisation of other types of datasets, or would we make sure the data were more equally accessed and used?

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